Friday, August 22, 2008

International Steez – Part 2: India comes to Cari

Before coming to Australia, one of the culinary goals I set for myself was to learn as much about Indian cuisine and culture as I could during my studies. Indian food was certainly underrepresented in my repertoire of recipes and I had a vague notion that its ingredients, spices, and techniques would be new and interesting for me. The $6 Indian lunch buffets near my old office in Cambridge were of surprisingly good quality and taste, but I knew there just had to be more to Indian food than saag paneer and chicken tikka masala.

Well…. the food gods heard my plea! I have four best girlfriends here in Australia…. and three of them are Indian! And they are all just as obsessed with food and culture as I am.

Leena was an early inspiration. You can read about some of her Indian food adventures here and here. Without the mortar and pestle and spice grinder she bequeathed to me when she departed Adelaide, my subsequent Indian food adventures would not have been possible! Here she is showing off her curry powder in my kitchen before traipsing off to make a lamb curry on one of her last days in Australia.

I tackled making paneer, Indian cheese, early on in my time here in Adelaide. You can read about it here. It wasn’t my first time making paneer, but regardless I was very impressed with how cool I was. I mean, who makes their own cheese?! Little did I know that was just the beginning.

My friend Jackie has fed my hunger for knowledge of Indian food in a number of ways. She and her mom hosted an Indian dinner for me and my classmates, which you may remember from this post. She also gave me an Indian cookbook for my birthday, which I am proudly holding here.

When I first received the cookbook, 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer, I read it more like a novel than a cookbook, mentally devouring its recipes in bed before falling asleep. Amaranth and asafetida and Bishop’s weed… fenugreek and jiggery and kewra and nigella… jackfruit and luffa and kudampuli and myriad colors of lentils! What were these strange and exotic ingredients, what did they taste like, what did they look like, where could I find them, how did I cook them? I thought I knew a little sumpin’ sumpin’ about food but this was a whole new undiscovered world to me.

The book’s role in my life has since transitioned from novel to food bible. I’ve made a number of recipes, including rista and goshtaba, lamb meatballs in two sauces. One sauce was cream-based and perfumed with saffron and fennel, and the other a thin spicy curry with black cardamom, cloves and saffron. Unfortunately I must have been too disoriented from the saffron-scented air in my kitchen to remember to take a photo of these curries, but trust me when I say they fulfilled all my expectations!

I have kind of become a vegetable freak and Indian cuisine offers so many vegetarian options that I really just do not know where to start. I made sirka paneer, sweet-tart paneer with potatoes and cauliflower in a vinegar sauce, and it was so satisfying and unique that I cannot wait to try some of the other vegetarian and paneer curries in the book. You first make a spice paste with vinegar, tomato paste, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fresh and dried chiles, garlic and ginger.

The curry comes together with fried onions, the spice paste, cauliflower, potatoes, coconut, and paneer. What amazed me most about this dish was that it was deceptively simple and quick, yet the curry had such depth of flavor and variety of texture. Another revelation I have had here in Australia is pappadums, crisp lentil wafers… and parathas, flaky buttery Indian breads. They are both readily available in supermarkets here and all they take is a zap in the microwave or a few minutes on the griddle and they are ready to accompany your Indian dream feast.

Here it is, sirka paneer with pappadums and parathas.

Well Ms. Meagan completes my circle of Indian gal pals here in Australia. She’s doesn’t do much Indian cooking but is obviously very knowledgeable on the subject and has a superb palate. When she tastes a curry, she can break it down and tell me if the curry paste is raw (meaning it wasn’t cooked long enough) and what the component parts of the curry are – something I am unable to do in this early stage of my Indian food knowledge adventure.

We the gastro-girls decided to head to curry night at the Exeter Hotel here in Adelaide. For $15, you get a substantial curry and rice and for just a bit more some chutneys and breads as accompaniments. Now that is quite a deal here in Adelaide – no $6 Indian buffets to be found here, no no no sista.

For the price, we were generally impressed by the quality and taste. The chutneys were flavorful and while the bread was neither fresh nor Indian (Jackie pinpointed it as a frozen Malaysian version of roti), it did not detract from the rest of the meal.

We shared the four curries we ordered. Meagan’s favorite was a Thai seafood curry in a mild and creamy coconut milk sauce, delicately scented with curry leaves and cilantro.

Jackie preferred the spicier Mumbai chicken masala.

None of us were impressed by the paneer and vegetable curry or the lamb “vindaloo” (which my India experts pronounce vin-DA-loo, not VIN-da-loo). There was only one piece of paneer in the veg curry which severely disappointed Amy (didn’t bother me cuz I got the one piece there was – ha!) and the lamb vindaloo apparently wasn’t really a vindaloo, the spices were still raw according to Meagan and Jackie, and Amy thought the lamb could have used another half hour on the simmer (she’s not Indian but she’s a chef and she knows food so I believed her). Regardless of all these small complaints, once we started eating…

It didn’t take long for us to polish off every last bit of the meal!

We were happy customers.

My Indian food adventures have reminded me why I love food – it’s a lens for me to understand and learn about cultures and people and history, it brings friends and families together, it’s a never-ending journey where the possibilities can never be exhausted and there is always something new to learn or perfect, it can be enjoyed anywhere at any time on any budget, and most importantly, it just makes me so darn happy.


Anonymous said...

I am honored to be your first shove into the world of Indian-ness, although I think you have cooked more curries than I have! Great post, I really like how you brought together all these similar yet different experiences.

Anonymous said...

WOW What a great blog!!! Scary lookin food but a great experience for you.I'm Stickin to my grilled chicken salads with Bud Light.YUM YUM

Anonymous said...

WOW What a great blog!!! Scary lookin food but a great experience for you.I'm Stickin to my grilled chicken salads with Bud Light.YUM YUM

Cari said...

Leena - thanks for the props I am a bigger Indian freak than you I think!!

Anonymous - PLEASE please go to the most tasty pizza shop you know and eat a whole pie for me and wash it down with a 6 pack of Bud. And think of me. I wish I could go with you.

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